The Foreshadowing author interview

The Foreshadowing
Marcus Sedgwick
The Foreshadowing
I know you have been interested in the Cassandra myth for some time;
can you tell us how it came to form the basis of The Foreshadowing?
Cassandra has about four one-line mentions in Homer’s Iliad. Most of her
story is in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which was my main source, though I did
read some of the things that have been written about her as well. Apollo gave
Cassandra the gift of the prophecy but then cursed her so that so no one
would believe that her visions were true – at least that’s one version of the
story. It’s interesting because although people are aware of her story, she’s not
a central character in the Trojan Wars. I think that’s because of her curse which
I think is a powerful story and one that I have wanted to use for a while. In
the end I didn’t need much of the original myth and quickly moved into my
own story. By setting the book in the First World War, I was able to give it
more layers, whereas a straight retelling of Greek myth would have been more
limited. I used the parallels with the original story where they fitted my
purpose; for example, their sea journeys and the war. However, I tried not to
swamp my story with original source material. And there is a point of
departure from the original when Alexandra eventually frees herself with her
belief that she can’t make her own future. That’s a big theme of the book
whether a person’s future is determined by freewill, fate or destiny.
Were you able to find evidence that premonitions are a genuine
Originally I had intended to write more about premonition. I wanted to find a
serious academic approach as a starting point and tried to contact authors and
psychologists who had written about the subject, but that didn’t come to
anything. I quickly discovered that the ‘Mind Body, Spirit’ shelves in
bookshops are full of mumbo jumbo, so I arrived at the conclusion that while
premonition was a central theme of the book, it was probably an area where I
needed to do least research as the ideas could be drawn from my imagination.
I did find recorded instances of premonitions occurring in soldiers on the
battlefields. I came across several references to characters like Hoodoo Bill who
would accurately predict the names of soldiers that would be killed. I based
Jack on material in those reports.
How did you eventually decide that your ‘Cassandra’ story would be
set at the time of the First World War?
I knew I wanted to update the story. It needed to be set in a period when
people didn’t generally believe in the ability to foretell the future. For instance,
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The Foreshadowing
if I had set it in the Middle Ages the story wouldn’t work because of
contemporary belief premonition. The unusual thing about Cassandra in the
original context is not that she could see into the future (the Greeks did have the
Oracle and other future-telling devices) but the fact that no one believed in her
prophecies. The First World War struck me as an ideal and powerful choice: there
was a big crisis emerging so Alexandra’s premonitions would have real significance.
You’ve previously written about the First World War; are there any
connections between that book and this one?
A few years ago I wrote a non-fiction book called Cowards. It took about nine
months of research in the Imperial War Museum as well as background reading
and online searching. During that research I became very interested in the
friendship between Sassoon and Graves and the 19th Brigade which included
the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Welch Fusiliers as well as the Public Schools’
Battalion that Tom enlists in. I only used about 5% of my research for Cowards
and felt there were other things that could be said in a new book.
How important was the timing? The story opens in 1915 but then there’s
a blank where nothing happens and then a leap forwards in time.
I had to start the story before the introduction of conscription, which began on
March 2nd 1916. It was important for me that it was the huge social pressure
Tom was living with rather than conscription that made him change his mind
about enlisting. I also needed the main action to take place in the summer of
1916 with the order for the ‘big push’ on the Somme. Bridging the time gap
was one of the challenges in writing the novel. I used Edgar’s death followed
by a silent period of mourning to account for the gap. There are six months
when Alexandra doesn’t write in her diary, which allows the story to advance
more quickly. The following chapters are short and broken to reflect her grief.
I prefer to keep the writing of emotionally charged events understated. One of
the effects of handling time like this is that I then needed to set up Part Two
almost like the beginning of a new book.
Although the First World War has been the subject of some recent
children’s books, women’s experiences have not been written about
more than a handful of times.
The First World War was a catalyst for the women’s movement simply because
the men were away fighting and women had to take on traditional male roles
like driving buses. After the war, the suffragette movement was able to capitalise
on the changes that had taken place during wartime. Alexandra is from a very
traditional family but she wants to be able to do something positive outside
the home. She’s a symbol of the early women’s movement. The Cassandra
myth speaks to her: she thinks she can free herself from tradition and act to
save her brothers.
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The Foreshadowing
How did you find the site for your final suspense?
With regard to the final suspense, I spent a long time thinking about how the
ending would play out and where it would happen. I knew that I wanted
Alexandra to get as close to the frontline as was logistically possible and that
she had to be based fairly close to Boulogne so that led me to the Somme
action. I followed a long line of research to establish the location of field
hospitals and how close nurses were to the war zone. Then I had to identify an
actual battle to set the ending against. It involved working out authentic ways
that both of Alexandra’s brothers could have joined up and what regiments
they might have enlisted in. I settled on High Wood because it was where the
Public School Boys’ Battalion were heading in July 1916.
How important is research when writing historical fiction?
Research is essential in historical writing because the details need to be accurate.
On a visit to the reading room at the Red Cross Museum I discovered that
passports were not needed for international travel before the First World War
but they became required documents during the war. Things were looking
dicey because Alexandra passes herself off as a nurse who has been given the
authority to go abroad. I needed to find out whether a nurse going to the field
hospitals would have been able to travel without a passport. Then I read about
a document that could stand in place of a passport and didn’t have a
photograph. It was a great relief because I wanted the details to be authentic
and the only other alternative would have been to gloss over it which
wouldn’t have been satisfactory.
Was it important to visit places as well as read original source material?
Yes, one of the things in visiting the scene is that you discover things out that
you didn’t anticipate when starting out. I knew that I wanted to find out about
the geography and terrain but I discovered a lot of unexpected detail. For
instance, I was struck by the colour of the mud which was grey and pasty
because of the chalky soil. It’s that sort of accurate colour that brings a story to
life. Emotionally it was important to visit as well. There are trenches that are still
visible and it all feels more recent than 90 years ago. The Somme Valley, that
long, narrow strip of land, must have had more deaths per square meter than
any other place. It is very strange and eerie and almost voyeuristic to be there.
So your research took you to France, did it take you to Brighton as well?
My family come from Brighton and I had conversations with an aunt who did
some research to help me find out where to set Alexandra’s house. We had to
find the right kind of house that reflected the status of her family, where a
surgeon might have lived and near enough to the Dyke Road Hospital. The
hospital was built as a school in 1913 and my grandfather went there for a
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The Foreshadowing
year but it was converted into a 520-bed Military hospital to receive Dominion
troops in February 1915. I also wanted a house with a sea view, which is
important to Alexandra. I chose Clifton Terrace and was fortunate to be able to
visit the inside of one of the houses in the road during Brighton’s Open Studio
event. That helped me pick up small interior details.
I also researched the tram system. I needed to know where Alexandra would
have caught a tram and where it would have run to. I couldn’t just write, ‘she
got on a tram,’ without knowing this information. So even though I might just
write one sentence about getting on a tram, there’s a lot of work that goes into
finding out.
I eventually felt that I was prevaricating with the research – it becomes
addictive. You read one book and that leads you on to five new books and each
of those in turn lead you on to another five books. So I had to make a decision
to stop researching and start writing, or the book would never get written.
Can you take us through the process of writing a book like The
First of all I do lots of reading and after a while an idea sticks its head up and
I’ll start to focus my reading around that subject. Often what happens is that
there are two ideas, which I think are going to be separate books, but the ideas
go together in a strange story mixture.
I spend a long time researching and making notes in my notebook in a fairly
random way. Then before I start writing, I work out the plot. I use large A2
sheets of paper and draw diagrams I jot down things about the characters and
setting and sometimes the structure. I refine that two or three times. It’s
important that I know where I’m going to begin and where I’m going to end,
even if I don’t know precisely what will happen in between. Openings are the
hardest parts of the book to write well but it’s also important to know how
things are going to end. With Floodland I reached the end and then discovered
that the character didn’t have sufficient motivation for the events that
unfolded. It was tricky and I did eventually find a way out of the problem but
not before I’d almost given up on the book; I didn’t want to find myself in a
similar situation with The Foreshadowing. One of the crucial issues I had to
address with Floodland before starting out was why Zoe’s parents didn’t search
for her. That’s when I decided that her mother would have had another baby
and that she’d been ill after the birth. I also like to have one or two really
important things that I’m going to say on the way – the stepping stones.
Once I think I have enough of a structure in place, I sit down with my big map
and notebook and start writing from the beginning, working towards my first
stepping stone. At the same time I’m also working ahead of myself on the big
map, so the next day when I sit down and start writing again I know where
I’m going. I also try to finish the writing day knowing the next thing I’m going
to do. It’s very hard to start the beginning of the day with a blank page and
not knowing what’s going to happen next.
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The Foreshadowing
I write very quickly. If I have a full day for writing, I can manage 5,000–10,000
words. When you consider that The Foreshadowing is 60,000 words it’s not a
large number of writing days, even if I don’t make 5,000 words everyday.
Writing straight onto the computer saves time and effort. My first draft is quite
quick and then there will be three, four or even five re-writes. I get the
skeleton of the story down concentrating on the plot and then fleshing it out,
bringing the characters alive and making it emotionally engaging. It’s very
hard to change a plot once you have worked it through because there are too
many ramifications so I prefer to concentrate on getting that right first.
The title, The Foreshadowing, refers to Alexandra’s premonitions but
it’s also a literary term that describes how you allow the mystery to
unfold by offering us clues that help us piece together the final
resolution. How difficult is it to build suspense without giving too
much away?
One of the most difficult things when you’re writing is to know how much to
give away. I do think carefully about how I’m building suspense and how the
plot is revealed to readers.
Doctor Who is supposed to be about time travel but 99% of the time the
characters don’t talk about it because it’s a difficult and dangerous subject and
you can end up creating too many problems for yourself. Similarly with
Alexandra I’ve told the reader that she can see the future, that she has seen it
and knows what’s going to happen. So I need to consider how I can keep
some surprises for the reader. I came up with the resolution in which
Alexandra shoots Tom very early on. Then it was just a matter of being careful
about the way it was written all the way through. I’m so close to telling the
reader what’s going to happen. I even mention that she’s the one holding the
gun but it’s like a double bluff that keeps the reader from realising that she’s
the one who’s going to do it. When you read back you’ll see that it makes
perfect sense.
It is difficult to know if you’ve got the suspense right and I have to rely on my
editor to say if it’s working or not.
I liked the use of the raven motif throughout the book which
resonates with literary allusions from a range of cultural sources.
The raven is an interesting motif and has always been a symbol of war and
harbinger of doom. There were quite a few more references to the Raven in the
first draft. In the classroom scene, for instance, there was a long sequence with
Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’, but Poe wasn’t really admired at the
time and wouldn’t have been discussed in the classroom, so we took those
bits out.
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The Foreshadowing
When writing a historical novel about a teenage girl how do you find a
voice that is both truthful but will also appeal to a contemporary reader?
Finding the right voice is something I find really interesting and have to think
about carefully. With The Dark Horse I got to the end of the first day’s writing
and then realised that I wanted Sigurd’s first-person voice as well as the more
objective third person. With the first person you set limitations for yourself:
you can only tell the reader what the narrator sees, you can’t discuss anything
else. Those limitations can give you interesting things to do: if you can convey
to the reader something that the narrator knows but hasn’t comprehended
then it’s even more powerful.
From the beginning The Foreshadowing was going to be a first-person narrative.
To write in this way you have to able to see things from the character’s point
of view, and know how they would feel in any situation. I did read
contemporary diaries of volunteer nurses to try and find a convincing young,
upper middle-class voice for Alexandra. But the result was too formal. It’s
important that the reader likes and can identify with the main character, so I
softened her voice contracting ‘I have’ into ‘I’ve for instance. Dialogue is
always an artifice because it’s never written exactly as it’s spoken. What is
important is to create the right feeling. So although technically Alexandra’s
voice was probably more accurate after the first draft, it would have seemed a
bit detached for a modern reader.
Enid Bagnold, the author of National Velvet, was a VAD nurse. She wrote about
her war experiences at the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich and the front
with a more sympathetic voice, so there are some authentic precedents.
Did writing this diary format story, which involves the main character
looking back into her past, present any particular problems?
Yes it is a diary but it’s undated. The diary format in the continuous present
can create problems when you are talking about something that happened
yesterday but from a more distant reflective stance. It did lead to some
convoluted tenses when it changes into the past historic as it does in the
dream sequences. Hopefully it works for the reader.
Counting down to the end by numbering the chapters backwards is an
interesting idea. How did that come about?
It’s interesting that a number of people who’ve read the book haven’t even
noticed that the chapters count back from 101. It’s an idea that I had ages ago.
One reason is that Alexandra’s reading her story back to us. I also wanted to
heighten the tension and by numbering the chapters like this I’m telling the
reader how little time there is left to go before the end so that creates a sense of
excitement, that the plot is about to unravel – the end is approaching. I cheated a
bit by having really short chapters leading to the denouement and then the
two longest chapters in the book afterwards.
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The Foreshadowing
Have you talked to children in school about this period?
When researching for Cowards and The Foreshadowing, I’d become very
interested in the friendship between Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.
They were in the same regiment but different battalions. They met for the
second time a fortnight before High Wood and had a conversation about
poetry. Up to that point, Sassoon had been writing idealised poetry about
honour and victory in the vein of 19th century romanticism. Graves was
already writing honest and quite brutal poems about what was happening. I
found it interesting that while poetry can be quite ethereal, in this instance the
poets’ discussion is fixed at a specific time when war was going on around
them. When I have worked in school I have used two of Sassoon’s poems an
early and later one and asked the pupils to tell me the differences between
them. They had some very interesting insights. Then we talked about the
conversation with Sassoon and Graves.
I do think the issues raised in The Foreshadowing, like conscription and
conscientious objection, are theoretically relevant to children today, and have
had interesting debates with classes both on this subject and that of
premonition since publication.
© Harcourt Education Limited, 2007